The secret to success? Human-centred design thinking

Jul 6, 2022 | Work

Learn how human-centered design thinking can help you succeed. This article takes an in-depth look at how to use human-centered design to create meaningful user experiences.

I love tools that make my life easier, more productive and make me feel in control. 

This is exactly what General Mills thought women wanted back in the 1950s with their launch of the Betty Crocker cake mix. 

The launch, however, was a massive flop. 

Why? Women felt that they were being replaced. They resented this box that took away their role. They felt guilty that they were using a shortcut. They worried that they would be found out! 

General Mills employed psychologists to help them understand their customers better. Incredibly, they did an incredible pivot and removed the powdered egg from the ingredients. Now the cake box had a simple statement:

“Add an egg.”

This proved to be a genius decision. Women still had the convenience they secretly craved but also felt like they had input. Their guilt was assuaged. That one egg gave them back some control. 

The initial design of this product was lacking a full understanding of the “human” they were selling to. Once they fully understood the 50’s housewife, they had a product that became a bestseller. 

Do you know what your customer wants? I’m not asking what you think they want. I want to know what your customer really desires, what they dream about, and what they really really want. 

If you know this before you start to design, then congratulations, you are already on the way to conducting what is known as human-centred design (HCD)

If not, let’s uncover what human-centred design really means and how you can start using it in your own organisations.

What is human-centered design thinking?

Human-centred design is a problem-solving approach that focuses on people. Design thinking looks at the problem, defines the needs, comes up with solutions, builds and tests.

Human-centred design, however, focuses on really understanding human needs in order to design a product that is desirable.

Their needs, their experience, and attempts to empathise with the user in much more detail than before.

When you understand the people you’re trying to reach—and then design from their perspective—not only will you arrive at unexpected answers, but you’ll come up with ideas that they’ll embrace.

IDEO, Field Guide to Human-centered Design
Dr Talke Hoppmann-Walton drawing a journey map. Human centered design thinking. Ux, my dear

Why does human-centred design matter?

If you want better products, then people need to be at the heart of it. It’s not just about how pretty something looks or all the fancy features and UI elements. It’s about how it speaks to a human problem or “jobs to be done” and solves that. 

It goes beyond just thinking functionally and technically about a problem, but really understanding how people think and feel about a challenge they’re facing.. 

It seeks to understand all the touch points a customer has with your product.

“When done well, a human-centred approach fuels the creation of products that resonate more deeply with an audience — ultimately driving engagement and growth.”

Dave Thomsen, writing in Wired

Covid-19 caused cultural norms, behaviours and interactions to dramatically change. Coupled with technological advances, global economic shocks and the growth of the gig economy companies can no longer rely on “gut instinct” ideas about their customers when designing products. 

Gen Z and Millenials are pushing the boundaries and have very different motivations and expectations. 

To be able to create effective, successful products and value propositions that work in today’s climate means really understanding human needs in this new world.

Human-centred design can help companies drive innovation and flex to produce products that are relevant and successful. 

How can you become more human-centred in your thinking?

Often companies approach innovation and product design with a rough idea of the problem and then straight away start coming up with a solution. 

Human-centred designers seek to fully immerse themselves in the problem. They try to remove themselves and their solutions from their thinking, letting the customer lead them instead.

User Experience (UX) experts can help you reorientate your design strategy and integrate an HCD approach. Forrester Research recently reported that UX design could improve conversion rates up to 400%. 

Putting the human in the centre of your design should be intrinsic to your process.  To do this the following stages should be followed:

1. Empathise

To fully understand how “humans” think and feel about the problem, you’ll need to undertake some form of investigation, observation and immersion or empathy mapping.

Consider questionnaires, focus groups, phone interviews or video interviews. Just be sure that you have a good sample of customers that is as inclusive as possible. 

You can be as simple or as complex as you want at this stage, but a good UX researcher and UX strategist will help the team determine the right questions to ask to uncover what the human need is and to be able to empathise.

Open-ended explorative questions will help uncover people’s true feelings. They will also help remove your own bias and assumptions. 

Remember that it’s not about asking what people want. People don’t know what they want. It’s about uncovering the needs and desires to be able to design for that.

2. Journey Mapping

Journey mapping helps you take a holistic view of the entire experience. Typically companies work in siloes with no one person responsible for the full end-to-end experience. 

By employing a UX strategist to support your journey mapping process you will be able to determine any pain points and most importantly, gain points. 

Track all user actions on a timeline being careful to map all scenarios and stages.

Think about the thoughts users will have as well as their feelings and behaviours.

Are they frustrated at the research stage, do they struggle to compare products, do they ask friends for advice?

Geography and culture are still important. So if you are launching in multiple geographics, be sure that you have done your homework in these areas too.

Use team workshops to interrogate and explore the design. Don’t limit this to just the design team. Sales, Marketing, Comms and Management can all bring different views helping to build a more robust product.

3. Ideation

At this stage, you should workshop and brainstorm as many ideas as you can to come up with a solution. 

Work with a facilitator that can help you drive innovative thought, break up siloes and encourage cross-collaborative thinking.

At the concepting and ideation stage it’s crucial not to shut down possible alternatives too early – go broad before you narrow down and don’t get stuck in one rabbit hole all too quickly.

Having several options and concepts before you dig into technical requirements and limitations is key to innovation.

4. Prototyping

It’s important to use prototypes and not be “sold” on your first design. It’s ok to fail. You want to fail to ensure you have the best product possible. 

Use real people to test your designs and don’t be afraid to go back and redesign.

“By engaging early with users and seeking their input and feedback, you gain valuable insights while still working with paper prototypes and sketches rather than fully built products. So you can pivot early and avoid steering resources in the wrong direction.”

Human-Centered Design Is More Important Than Ever, BCG Publications, By Dutch MacDonald, H.R. Shiever, Nancy Rekhelman, Rehaab Raza, Phil Gerrard, and David Heacock

5. Test

This should be an iterative process to see if the product is really solving a problem and if it is usable. 

Ideally, you want to observe people using your product so you can get a real feel for how they interact with it and what they are thinking.

What are the benefits of human-centered design thinking?

Human-centered design thinking could save you significant time, effort and money when delivering a product to market, because you do this prior to development to start getting your organisation thinking in terms of “human-first,” you need this way of thinking to be part of your culture. 

Is your organisation already fully human-centred in their product development?